Monthly Archives: April 2016

ELEGY Donmar, WC1

SCIENCE AND THE DISAPPEARING SELF

 

 

Suppose neuroscience could cure creeping brain deterioration by taking out whole networks of decaying neurons and replacing them with silicon, guaranteeing functionality, but wiping years of memory. Would you say yes – for yourself or a loved one – as the price of avoiding undignified decline? How frightening is it for the patient to contemplate losing “what binds me to me”, as Zoe Wanamaker’s Lorna puts it in this brief, brilliant, alarming piece? And how wrenching for a long-term spouse to find herself looked at with a stranger’s dispassionate , judging disaste?

 

 
Amnesia and dementia are preoccupying theatres right now. Only weeks ago the Donmar did it a larkier way, as Anouilh’s Welcome Home Captain Fox saw a forgetful soldier confronting his unsavoury previous life; the Park had Alistair McGowan forgetting his gay lover and rediscovering painting, in Peter Quilter’s 4000 Days; Florian Zeller’s The Father won Kenneth Cranham an Olivier.

 

 
The theme particularly suits theatre with its ability to confuse our sense of reality, time, and the reliability of speakers. And few writers are better suited to it than Nick Payne, whose dreamlike, episodic fugue of a play CONSTELLATIONS had great success, and whose extraordinary INCOGNITO was in my view far better, circling around the fate of Einstein’s brain and giving the pain of forgetfulness voice in the unforgettable line “We are a blip within a blip in an abyss”.

 

 
This time Payne is takes on the possibility of deliberately induced, therapeutic amnesia – not(as in the film Eternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind) just to wipe out unwanted exes but to treat disease. The story is told backwards, beginning with an unnerving encounter between Carrie (Barbara Flynn) a retired RE teacher, and a slightly irritated Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker). Carrie is plying a newly discharged Lorna with questions and reminders; we discover that they were happily married, having met in their forties. Yet now in Lorna, not a fleck of memory or affection remains.

 

 

 

Rolling backwards, under Josie Rourke’s tight direction, we see the stages Carrie went through as Lorna became ever more confused, aggressive, angry and unpredictable. This backward travel is brilliantly effective because – after being slightly embarrassed by the galumphing neediness of Flynn’s heartbreakng Carrie, met by Lorna’s scorn at awkward reminders of their love, we gradually get to see and believe in that love. It makes the loss all the more horrifying: we see caring, kindly reassurance from Carrie as the confusion mounts, with Wanamaker – as ever a packet of electric energy – terrifying in bursts of anguished aggression. Then earlier still, the couple face the grim diagnosis together, loving, even joking, firm in their devotion. It is done with shattering credible honesty, the two women deep in tune. We learn too that Lorna was the more reluctant of the two, protesting “This isn’t progress!” “It could save your life!” “But I want THIS life”. And bitterly, we see that the treatment was given the green light under Lasting Power of Attorney by Carrie: who now must suffer most. The philosophical and ethical questions burn deep.

 

 

In between , Nina Sosanya as the doctor explains, persuades, speaks of neurons and myelin and axons and how memory cannot be replaced because it is non-linear and associative, though there have been experiments on “mice, rats and zebra fish” which sadly became “psychotic”. Behind them, Tom Scutt’s set is a great glass pillar containing a vast, dead oaktree trunk riven as if by lightning, and intermittently obscured by smoke. A metaphor almost too devastating, as the final moments, seventy minutes in, return us to scene one and a crisp, unemotional Wanamaker rejecting her once-beloved’s yearning for one fond word, a kiss, a sign…
box office 0844 871 7624 to 18 June
principal sponsor : Barclays

rating     four   4 Meece Rating

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CLYBOURNE PARK Richmond & TOURING

A MODERN MASTERPIECE

 
This is that finely balanced thing: a comedy built around a tragedy. Six summers ago, a newfledged critic for the Times, I wrote about its British premiere: “Bruce Norris’ play is billed as a satire on race and property in America, in 1959 and then the present day, but it reaches wider. Norris is in fact occupying territory somewhere between Arthur Miller and vintage Ayckbourn, and holding it triumphantly.”

 

 
His central idea is the observation that inner-suburban areas which once were all-white, dreading a black influx, find themselves fifty years later dominated by a black community and at at risk of a gentrifying invasion of white people drawn by promiximity to “downtown”… which might ring some bells in our cities. We first meet the ‘50s couple, covering the deep pain of a two-year-old tragedy with banal banter, and finally succumbing to rage or tears in dispute with a pastor and a frightful neighbour who is horrified at their selling to a black family. In Act 2 we meet the 2009 moderns, locked in fraught debate as the white incomers plan to rebuild the same house bigger, and the black locals (upwardly mobile now but descended from the ‘50s incomers) civilly disguise their contempt.

 

 

 

The Court’s version went to the West End, but has pretty much vanished from our canon of modern classics since. So cheer for Daniel Buckroyd of the Colchester Mercury, whose elegant and thoughtful productions tour the land (link below) and redress the howling injustice of Londoners getting all the fun. I only wish that the tour was heading into more towns where, as in Norris’ imagined neighbourhood, there are mingled sensitivities about both house prices and race. Or, as Bev and Russ in Act 1 would say , the matter of “coloureds” – until Jim the dreadful patron1zing vicar says piously ” don’t we say Negro now?”

 

 
The slyness of Norris’ brilliant text mines awkwardnesses like that, in both the 1959 and 2009 acts. Hypocrisy, deep worried prejudice  and self- interested alarm contort language and betray themselves. I had remembered the magnificently shocking second act in which the moderns are constantly on their mobiles, debate hopelessly, and manage, one after another, to offend one another (on race, gayness, feminism, patriotism, disability, rape, vulgarity, you name it). You hear the actual gasps before the laughs: even at the show I saw, a last matinee on a quiet day in Colchester,

 

 

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Buckroyd’s cast are tremendous: Mark Womack particularly as the enduring, suffering Russ in the first act, and Gloria Onitiri deploying – as the black ‘50s maid and the successful modern woman – first dignity, and then venomous, brittle killer timing. Another shout for Ben Deery’s infuriating malicious geek Karl in the first half; but they are all great, perfect casting and solidly at ease as an ensemble.

 

 
What I had forgotten about is Norris’ satisfying, sly mystifications: you only gradually see what is happening in both acts. The first begins in deliberately banal uncomical chat between the 1959 couple, the second in a committee whose purpose one cannot quite grasp. But clarity grows, and the growing interweaving of themes, remarks, and character traits between the two disparate acts is masterful. Nor does Norris fall into the trap of exaggerating the similarities of then and now: the second Act is not a mirror image of naive 1959 racism, but a tricky modern swamp of hypocrisy, awkward liberalism and lurking unsayables.

 

 
And the tragedy stays at the heart of it. We come poignantly full circle to a final haunting, and a reminder that next to real loves and griefs , all offence is trivial. Brilliant.

 

 
Richmond Theatre to 30 APril, http://www.atgtickets.com/richmond
then touring Guildford, Cambridge, Oxford, Theatr Clwyd.
rating Five   5 Meece Rating

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SHOWBOAT NEW LONDON THEATRE WC2

ROLLING ALONG, CARRYING ALL BEFORE IT

 
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly – you gotta laugh and you gotta cry. And believe me, you won’t help loving this stunning, flawless, celebratory production. Swooping down from a five-star run in Sheffield, it’s the swansong of its Artistic Director Daniel Evans as he leaves to run Chichester. So anyone in Chichester worrying about its future blockbuster musicals can calm down. This is as good as their GYPSY, though Kern and Hammerstein’s 1927 musical is less focused on one huge star: its joys and dramas and legendary numbers spread across an exuberant ensemble.

 

 
They spread over decades, too: there’s an epic quality to this grandaddy of the modern storytelling musical, as forty years go rollin’ along over showpeople and lovers. In 1887 we meet them on the levée at Natchez, Mississippi, black workers toiling under bales of cotton, white performers primping up for Captain Andy’s vaudeville night aboard the Cotton Blossom. From there to 1927 fortunes rise and fall, roulette wheels spin, hearts are broken , babies born, war and Prohibition and the KKK and the long, cruel backwash of old slavery define an America struggling into the new age.

 

 
It is an epic indeed, operatic and cinematic (old monochrome footage flickers by, setting the moment without fuss). It is funny and melancholy by turns. From the moment when the great paddle-steamer first rolls towards us, and bent beneath baskets and bales “coloured folk work while the white folk play” , the combination of seriousness and spectacle dazzles. But never at the expense of storytelling: innocent Magnolia and dashing Gaylord lock eyes on the wharf, Julie and her man are banished for their negro blood, Frank and Ellie-Mae bicker and seek their stardom, and Captain Andy (Malcolm Sinclair) grows old under the sharp tongue and rigid principles of his puritan wife. Everything happens, every big number rising like a wave and ebbing into gentleness, for the joy of Hammerstein’s book is in the contrasts of mood. Emmanuel Kojo’s deep beautiful renderings of Old Man River flow through the show, sometimes creating an actual physical frisson; the love duets of Gina Beck and Chris Peluso as Nola and Gaylord melt heartbreakingly together (these are fine, fine voices). Alistair David’s choreography gives us joyful, stamping dances in thrilling ensemble numbers. A wrenching farewell from father to child is followed by an angry, sozzled, unforgettable rendering of “Just my Bill” from Rebecca Trehearne’s Julie; abandoned Nola’s growlingly low contralto “Fish gotta swim” is frivolously reworked by the Trocadero’s sharp pianist into a ragtime beat. A triumphant ‘after the ball” actually had the front rows singing along. Sandra Marvin’ s Queenie and her Joe entertainingly define long patient and impatient marriage. More than one star is born in this cast tonight.

 

 
Oh, and one line rings particularly in the mind as Andy, in the new ‘20s world of flapper dresses, admires the ladylike poise of his granddaughter Kim . “When she sits on a chair” he growls “She realizes that the human knee is just a joint and not an entertainment”. That sticks, because when Danny Collins’ Frank dances his superbly bizarre, mad-twisted-grasshopper legwork completely negates that statement. This man’s knees are a entertainment, one you won’t forget.
soon forget. Especially if you go again. Which lots of us, I suspect, will.

 
box office 0844 412 4654 to 7 January 2017
rating Five   5 Meece Rating

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JUNGLE BOOK Theatre Royal Windsor & touring

GRIME AND GRACE IN THE URBAN JUNGLE

 
You never know what you’ll get from Poppy Burton-Morgan’s Metta Theatre. I can’t claim to have spotted every venture of her ten years, but definitely remember a site-specific Pirandello in a tiny cafe and updated Scheherezade tales at the Soho by modern Arab writers from Tunisia to Syria during the Arab Spring (Sindbad was a migrant to Italy, forerunner of today’s diaspora). Oh, and there was a haunting Alice in Wonderland spin-off in a tunnel under the V & A. I missed their full-scale Cosi fan Tutte in Oxford, and a children’s show about worms and baby bats. But now, touring towards the London Wonderground in August, here’s a circus and hip-hop ballet with a moral motive, inspired by a (posthumously rather startled) Rudyard Kipling.

 

 

Here’s a female Mowgli, Baloo as a beatboxing bin-man urging us to imagine “bare necessities on a bare stage”, and an urban jungle of skateboarding parkour wolves, a supercool Kaa, a trapezing vulture and an immense, fabulously muscled Shere Khan villain, Dean Stewart: whose CV proclaims him expert in the disciplines of “krump, popping, breaking (b-boy) contemporary, jazz and hip-hop” not to mention dancing behind Sugababes.

 

 

So if it does nothing else, the show will help educate confused middle-aged people like me about krump, grime and whatever b-boy is. Already Mums, Grans and teachers seem to be flocking in with children (including some tiny ones who seem totally au fait with urban culture, cheered Mowgli loudly and dragged their tottering Grans to their feet for the curtain call dance-off). It probably helps if the youngest arrive knowing the story of The Jungle Book; but after Disney and now this year’s new film, the odds are that most of them will. And Burton-Morgan’s version of the plot is compelling, and detailed in the programme (there is only sparse verbal narration, in rap).

 

 
Little Mowgli, a puppet at first and then the tiny, nimbly acrobatic and expressive Natalie Nicole James, loses her mother and is taken up by the wolf-pack and mentored by a gloriously comic breakdancing Baloo in a hi-vis jacket (Stefan Puxon). She escapes the monkeys, wards off Shere Khan with fire in a fabulous Red Flower dance, and when Akela is banished for failing a skateboard jump, goes back to the city – more marvellous dancing as robotic figures in suits jerk around with briefcases . She finds her lost mother who, in the most entertaining number of all, gets her out of her neat red jumpsuit and into a series of skirts, in which Mowgli performs different styles of dance – waltz, Charleston, ballet – each one descending into frenzied street-dance moves, especially striking in a tutu. Kendra J.Horsburgh is the choreographer, with Nicole James herself and Nathalie Alison (Kaa) credited for the acrobatic sections.

 

 

 

I am no dance critic, but can vouch for the excitement, the contrast, and the way that every move serves the theatrical narrative: though I did have to check it out a bit in the interval to be sure of some of the subtleties. The cast, rich in edgy dance and circus experience, are remarkable. Especially young Natalie’s Mowgli, whose lithe red-clad figure will stay in my mind’s eye a fair while : leaping, rolling, somersaulting, trapezing, clambering up the skewed lamp-posts of the set, duetting on an aerial hoop with Natalie Alison as the most graceful of vultures.

 
But if you want the oddest thought which flickered through my head, watching this portrait of the modern urban dispossessed (dance gives you a lot of time to think in sentences), it was about Kids’ Company. I realized that Baloo – friendly, vigorous, overenthusiastic but benign mentor of the lost child – was basically Camila Batmanghelidgh…

Touring: details at http://www.mettatheatre.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE COMEDY ABOUT A BANK ROBBERY Criterion, W1

MISCHIEF THEATRE STRIKES AGAIN. HURRAH!

 

 

Years ago, a famous US television show called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In hit on the strategy – as Ken Dodd had decades earlier, and still does – of firing off really cheesy jokes and puns, as lame as the oddly-famed Four Candles, but so fast and mercilessly thick that they become irresistibly funny and you had to gurgle along.  The prison scene which opens Mischief Theatre’s new venture made me briefly fear that they would stick to this formula, hoping it would sustain a full-length play.  Three to six pun-misunderstandings  per minute hit us, including a reiterated “Neil!” making people kneel, and “I see” misheard as “Icy”. That sort of thing. I fretted. But this is Mischief, I should have had faith: that burst, to get the audience cackling, is only one of the multiple mixed-genre tactics in their farcical spoof of a 1950s heist-noir movie. It settles us down while our antihero Mitch (Henry Shields, one of the three authors)  springs himself from prison assisted by various comedy officers and a startlingly athletic fence-vault, on the way to rob an incompetent Minneapolis bank of a legendary diamond.

 

 

 

This one is a departure for this well-hefted troupe, though marked by their typical leCoq precision, speedy slapstick and alarming physical fearlessness. Abandoning the “am-dram goes wromg” technique which won them an Olivier for The Play that goes Wrong and sustains their even funnier Peter Pan, this time they stay in stage character, classic farce tradition larded with some unexpected atmospheric singing (Elvis, gospel, dum-de-dum) and ingenious human props. The only deliberate sense of actorly struggle this time is in one memorable scene in the second Act, involving dodgy sideways aerialism I will not spoil by describing. The rest is a classic, albeit heavily embroidered broad ’n bandit plot, unashamedly retro at times. Because hey, they’re just not making 1950s screwball movies any more, and someone has to take up the baton…

 

 

 

So here’s Shields as tough Mitch, with co-authors Henry Lewis as Mr Freeboys the bank manager and Jonathan Sayer as the much-battered ageing intern Warren, who in a bald-wig and glasses combo looks eerily like a hasty cartoon of Will Gompertz of the BBC. Other seasoned Mischievites are Charlie Russell as Clarice the slinky moll and Nancy Wallinger (with a fine bluesy voice) as Ruth the amorous bank receptionist whose son Sam (Dave Hearn, a Mischief founder) lusts after Clarice and steals wallets and – Oh, look, you have to be there. Even if only not to miss the scenes in and around Clarice’s fold-up bed, a series of superb physical disasters, instant disguises and perilous tip-ups (how on earth do this company ever get through a run with all their limbs and skulls intact?). It reaching an apogee in an acrobatic accidental threesome, considerably more entertaining to contemplate than the one in the current injunction.

 

 

 
And so to Act 2: the robbery, with some breathtaking staging, lost trousers, more appalling puns, and fast and disciplined physical gags involving police paperwork and swoop-spec’d aunties which made me actually choke with giggles. There’s a recurring seagull gag too, which will stay with me for days in a happy glow of memory. And a nicely underacknowleged Beckettian surrealism in the stubborn inability of any character to notice the difference between a very big man with a luxuriant moustache, and impersonators a foot shorter and two feet narrower with lampshade-tassels stuck crookedly under their noses.

 

 
As a moody Sunday-afternoon old-noir-flick aficionado I also relished the Double Indemnity moment between Freeboys and Warren. It’s got everything a sweaty London evening needs: it’s daft and deft, pantomimic and parodic, physical and fantastical, pure pleasure delivered with dashing precision.

 
box office 0844 815 6131 to 2 October
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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THE FLICK Dorfman, SE1

LIGHTS! CAMERA!  SLOW BUT FASCINATING ACTION!  

 

 

We sit as if we are the cinema screen of a run-down fleapit in Massachusetts: we confront the back wall at projector window, and are occasionally dazzled by bright beams in the many blackouts. When showtime music ends, we face 100 empty seats between which two men languidly sweep up popcorn. That’s what we’re here for: to eavesdrop on these ordinary lives in their quiet desperations, desires and diversions, and monitor their interaction with Rose, the only woman: she is promoted to the projection box, lacing up the last 35mill non-digital projector in Worcester County.

 

 
A somewhat baleful reputation preceded Annie Baxter’s play, straight over from New York in Sam Gold’s production, with two of his original cast: it may have won a Pulitzer, but its length – three hours plus interval – apparently freaked out the off-Broadway audiences, some of whom wrote indignant messages about having had to sit for 1 hr 40 in the first half alone (though heaven knows, Mr Spielberg often asks far more of us, some of his films amounting almost to a hostage situation).

 

 

Anyway, they were quite wrong to leave. They’d have missed the drama of the great popcorn revenge, some of the most expressive body-language ever achieved while wringing out a mop, an electrifying recitation from Ezekiel, and one of the most devastating declarations of unrequited love since Viola. A bald, 35-year-old, lumpen male Viola, but its a full willow-cabin throb.

 

 
The two men are Matthew Maher as Sam, a beautifully nuanced unlikely hero. He stolidly holds on to his tiny seniority as he teaches skinny newcomer Avery (Jaygann Ayeh) about clearing up, disinfecting the popcorn machine and – when Rose joins them – about the routine ticket-stub scam which provides “dinner money” (one of our most senior critics admitted in the interval that he remembers that scam well from his distant youth in the old Curzon).

 

 

Slowly, for this is a deliberate, atmospheric play full of silences, we see them reflecting on the mess people leave – Avery shocked to see remains of hot-dogs he sold only hours before, Sam more annoyed at “outside food” sneaked in, until he remembers in a moment of existential revelation that he brings his own tamales in to other cinemas. Avery is edgy, troubled, and obsessive about saving the fragile beauty of 35-mill film and warding off digital: he’s a college boy on a break, the one black character but also the only middle-class one, an academic’s son. Sam, slower, enjoys a challenge of “six degrees of separation” in movie casts (“Michael Caine to Britney Spears” etc) which geeky Avery always wins. Rose is grungy, farouche: Sam worships her in silence, Avery yearns only for a lesson on her projector. Unseen, the owner Steve is selling up.

 

 

It is a delight, a gentle, subtle slow-building parable of how the inflated movie themes are reflected and outclassed by small real ones: race, ambition, sexual confusion, love, suicidality, family disruption and retardation, betrayal, honour and dishonour among thieves. People will call the long silences “Pinteresque” but they are far better, because rather than cynical menace they fill with subtler hopes, doubts and astonishments. Rather than laughing at losers in The Caretaker, here we root for them, want redemption. We nearly get it, and there is certainly a beautiful ironic joke at the end: Avery, wedded to the doctrine of celluloid’s truthfulness, gets some old film cans and they’re all animations or CGI-rich: Rugrats, Star Trek, Honey I Shrunk the Kids. As to why he’s carting them off , no spoilers. It’s a surprisingly good yarn.

 
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 15 June
Rating four   4 Meece Rating

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MY MOTHER SAID I NEVER SHOULD… St James Theatre, SW1

SIXTY YEARS, FOUR GENERATIONS: WHAT THE WOMEN DID

 

 

Say, first of all, that Maureen Lipman was born to play Doris, the Lancashire matriarch at the heart of Charlotte Keatley’s modern classic. In this revival she never misses a beat: without overdoing it Lipman can convulse an audience with a mere word (“Polytechnic” “End Terrace” ), or silence our breathing with a wrenching, gentle monologue expressing a hidden life. She carries Doris through: first a 1940’s housewife born illegitimate in 1900 in “reduced circumstances’ , becoming a mildly disappointed, undemonstrative no-nonsense mother. Then a mellower grandmother, holding family secrets; finally a fearless widowed octogenarian taking evening classes, kicking off her pop-socks in the sun, finally at ease. At times she is also required to be her five-year-old self, playing in a wasteground the farouche, unsupervised games of an earlier age when Doctors and Nurses stood in for sexual exploration. In every manifestation Lipman nails it.

 
The play tracks four generations of women from the war to 1985: Doris mothers Margaret, who grows up as a career woman (though her final promotion is to be PA to a young male graduate with dodgier grammar). Margaret’s daughter Jackie is a sixties kid, has baby Rosie by a married man, can’t keep her and lets Margaret take over while, in the shameful primness of that age, she plays big-sister and becomes a glamorous galleriste. With their various menfolk unseen – old Jack, American Ken, faithless Graham – the four women express much about motherhood and daughterhood which needs expressing: love, resentment, secrets, and the mother-daughter misunderstandings inevitable in a fast-changing century. As Doris says, each generation demands more than the one before, and so finds its own disappointments. Doris had the mangle-bound hardship and a long marriage with no exit; Margaret wage-earning responsibility without prestige, Jackie freedom and adventure but a broken maternal heart. Rosie seems, as the play ends on her 16th birthday, to be the winner, the end of the evolution. But one can’t help working out that she would now be in her forties, battling with IVF or fretting about sexting teenagers, an endless mortgage and a husband with a midlife crisis.…

 

 
That’s not in the play of course, but the fact that one muses on it shows that Keatley’s narrative, through artful time-shifts, still has heft and strength : the rarity of her pitiless focus on ordinary women’s experience made the play a sensation in 1985. Her ear is pitch-perfect down the decades: from Doris’ typical wartime injunction to her piano-bashing daughter “less passion and more perseverance”, to the winceable moment when the busy working mother Margaret – her teenage daughter having had unprotected sex – moans “If you’d asked me..” and gets the devastating reply from Jackie “I did say I wanted to talk to you , and you said we can talk while we go round the garden centre”. Ouch.

 

 

 
There are many such moments, superbly underwritten but devastating, as the story unfolds. Katie Brayben is a strong Jackie: conflicted, heartbroken about the baby but ambitious; Caroline Faber gives Margaret, the most cheated of them all, a weary solidity; Serena Manteghi has a tricky job, since we only see Rosie from a hyperactive eight years old to a bratty sixteen, and the capering and spoilt-kid cuteness make it – in any production – difficult to get the audience to empathize as Margaret and Jackie fight over who she should live with. Manteghi could – maybe will as the show settles – tone down the capering a bit.

 

 
It is set rather bleakly in a white box amid TV screens , flashing newsreels and showing the year and the place (though rather too quickly, you could miss it if you didn’t know the play’s structure) but props warm it up from time to time. A bigger quibble in Paul Robinson’s production for Tiny FIres is that the odd interludes where the cast become small girls playing – necessary in Keatley’s vision to define their innate ferocity – feel intrusive. They smell too much of a 1980s drama-school exercise. But they’re in the play so must be honoured. And Lipman can do that stuff , and make us laugh and believe it, as well as she does everything else. What a marvel.

 

 

box office 0844 264 2140 to 21 May.
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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LEGALLY BLONDE, THE MUSICAL Curve, Leicester

ELLE WOODS IS BACK,  PINKER THAN EVER

 
Full disclosure: transport , domesticity and a hacking cough meant that on this two-show day in the lovely Curve I had to skip out at the interval. But can happily report that Nikolai Foster’s production reanimated the happy memories of the Savoy one which launched Sheridan Smith to fame, while having a cheerful flavour of its own. Pure pleasure, this show: a top-class marshmallow sundae of a night.

 

 

Matthew Wright’s clean design uses light themes cleverly: pink and purple for Elle’s princessy Californian world, baize-green and sober reds for Harvard. Lucie Jones as the Malibu girl who follows her ghastly lover to Law School, and beats him even at law, is tuneful and likeable with a vivid energy: she makes the most of the pleasingly ridiculous lines like “I”m not exactly trailer trash, Beyoncé is a neighbour!”.

 

 
The ensemble execute violently acrobatic dances, especially in Elle’s dancing application to Harvard: her own vigorous twerking with a terrified, tweedy professor is a particular treat. All the pleasures I remember in Laurence O”Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are there, especially the horrified Californian complaint that the East Coast is cold and wet and “all the girls have different noses”. And Ian Kelsey as Callahan makes the most of the predatory, sharkish lawyer’s ‘Blood in the water!”.

 
So yes, the fun’s all there, and this splendidly ridiculous, rom-com-romp of a musical is well worth its revival. It also suits this fine theatre: there must have been some qualms about Ishy Din’s WW1 WIPERS, which in possibly the most perfect contrast any two-house theatre has ever run plays at the same time in the big studio which lies back-to-back with the main theatre. Very loud shellfire could have leaked through. It didn’t. Not even faintly.

 

 

And heaven be praised, those confined by complex long distance travel like me, trailing sadly out at the interval, do not miss the real top hit of the show, one I have been singing to myself on every trip to Ireland since. Tupele Dorgu as the yearning beautician Paulette delivers, to perfection, her longing for an Irish lover : “All Irish men are like heroes / They’re descended from poets and kings / So I swore I’d get married in IReland / In a wedding like Lord of the Rings”” For that alone it’s worth the drive to Leicester, and I left with regret, though knowing that she would find her Irishman in the end.

 
Oh, and the lapdog behaves. Though Jones perhaps wisely does not attempt Sheridan Smith’s famous chihuahua-leaps-into-handbag moment: Smith once told me that the only way to ensure that was to secrete many, many pieces of meat around her pink-clad person, and she smelt quite gamey by the interval…

 
box office 0116 242 3595 to 14 May

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ONE MILLION TINY PLAYS ABOUT BRITAIN Watermill, Newbury

THIS LAND IS OUR LAND…

 

 

There are actually only about thirty, out of Craig Taylor’s rather wonderful collection of 94 first seen in The Guardian. But the sense of our millions is there, as Laura Keefe’s joyful, quirky production becomes a mosaic of brief British encounters in the four nations None is especially dramatic, but each is loaded with meaning. Perhaps a momentous one – death, separation, revelation – or simply a strategy to get through a tedious day. Indeed the final one in this selection encapsulates both the mundanity and the immensity of human life: two workers pick up litter in an urban park, and one muses on how he likes to invest every crisp-packet or nasty tissue with what might have been its story. His colleague is just exasperated.

 

 

You could relate it to sketch comedy, but because it is free from the need for unrelenting laughter or smart punchlines, it can embrace pathos and disturbance as well: skimming over everything – love, death, family, immigrant labour, Asian marriage codes, body-image. Tones vary from Beckett to Bennett, Ayckbourn to Anouilh. A conversation between a widow and her daughter about the mother’s first attempted date brings tears to the eyes: even though the widow is played, without so much as a wig, by a middle-aged man.

 

 

Thus in a set resembling a cluttered garage, with handy props lying around, playlets ranging from about thirty seconds to five minutes have us eavesdrop on assorted lovers, parents, friends, colleagues, officials (there is a wonderfully preoccupied GP peering into a computer and failing to listen to her patient, and a brief, stroppy immigration officer berating an invisible baffled immigrant family about how on the form an X is not the same as a tick).

 

 

The two players are Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls, though as they grab hasty onstage changes each changes gender and age: Nicholls a disconcerting sight in a pink tutu, and both of them at one point drunken hen-night lasses in Newcastle in cosplay outfits as Wonderwoman and Superman. In Keefe’s cheerfully inventive production, designed by Fly Davis, there is a looming, bright-lit Bingo board: each sketchlet is introduced with a booming voice giving the number and location (“a teashop in Harrogate!” “A surgery in Norfolk” etc.). Pleasingly, the two players at each of those moments have an air of faint surprised panic as they hasten towards the appropriate prop or whip off a layer of costume. They’re playing: we’re eavesdropping, flying like watchful drones over the chequered island.

 
It is brisk – two hours including interval – and set up for a tour of small local spaces. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Keefe extend it to give us another dozen of the tiny plays.
box office 01635 460444 to 23 April
then TOURING to 7 May – details here            http://tinyurl.com/zkskkf4

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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WIPERS Curve, Leicester

THE HEROES FROM THE EAST

 

A hundred years ago, a Punjabi gunner in the 129th Baluchi regiment, Khudadad Khan, stayed at his post in the machine gun nest, injured and at bay , his commanding officer dead. With his remnaining comrades he held off the German advance for long enough for reinforcements to come, and fend off an invasion across the Channel. Surviving by a hair himself, Khan won the Victoria Cross.
Learning the story, Ishy Din found a focus for Leicester’s important, intriguing dramatic tribute to the South Asian troops who were brought over to fight for the Empire. Which some of them were, frankly, already beginning to wonder about. In Din’s play, though, it is only near the end that Waleed Akhtar”s Ayub dares pose a direct question to the greenhorn young white officer Thomas. “We gave you our values, the railway, our technology…” Says the lad, his accent cut-glass, his initial panic quelled by rest and food. Ayub just quietly askd “Why?”. His parents would remember the mismanaged famine of 1876, during which 320,000 tons of grain were exported by the colonial power…we were not always a caring “parent” to what young Thomas thinks of as childlike colonies.

 
But that is late on. The play, a slow-burn 100 minutes beautifully set in a towering barn and directed by Suba Das, sees three Asian soldiers detailed to hold it with tripwires and small-arms under the young, scared, new British officer, Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia – who may look like any pink faced public school sixth former but is in fact of Punjabi descent). Distant fire indicates Khudadad’s stand beyond the fields through the long day and night: the respect in which he is held by Lance-Naik (lance corporal) Sadiq and the sepoy AD is movingly witnessed throughout. This is their regimental father, mentor, legend: and also the Company letter-writer for these men thousands of miles from home, knowing themselves “here to soak up bullets” and held together by fierce mutual loyalty and culture.

 
And food. After initial tensions – not least over ambition and rivalries, with snippy exchanges between Simon Rivers’ tough black-bearded Sadiq and Sartaj Garewal’s AD – better conversations grow over the elegant construction of a hot dhal dish in mess-tins. Garewal elegantly dices garlic and chillies with his bayonet: costume and kit detail is magnificent, respect to Isla Shaw. The puppyish English officer is contrasted with the focused, hard-honed Indians, of whom only Ayub is both literate and English-speaking. The tension ,where experience and strength is on one side but authority on the other, is neatly handled: the conclusion strong, avoiding melodrama, acknowledging cultural strengths and honour both sides.

 

 

As i say, the play feels like a slow burn for a while, but finally its strength is just that. Ishy Din is wise not to grope for more plot that is provided by the situation itself. I have written before ( http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p). about the remarkable ability of theatre, above all other arts, to express the experience of WW1 and let the dead walk before us, individual and human. This is an honourable addition to that education, and I am grateful. It has a tour: British Asians should come, and us their neighbours too.
0118 2493595. http://www.curveonline.co.uk. To 23 April. Then touring to 21 May
Rating. Four.    4 Meece Rating

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BOY Almeida, N1

STREETS OF LONDON, SNAKING TO NOWHERE…

 
The boy of the title  is Liam: gormless and runty, lost and unnoticed , scion of a demographic much discussed right now. For he’s a white, working-class, 17-year-old “NEET” (not in education, employment or training). His turf is today’s London, its squalid impersonal bustle quite brilliantly evoked by director Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether’s ingenious set. She turns the Almeida’s centre into a snaking conveyor-belt, on which (by impressively precise stage management) there rapidly appear and disappear shabby council-flat doors, roadworks, bus shelters full of noisy lairy girls, Oyster barriers and park saplings . As Liam drifts around, broke and with no money on his phone, feeding off thrown-away chicken wing boxes, he looks for his friend . Who has an X-Box to play Call of Duty. He makes his way uncertainly from his own ‘hood to Sports Direct on Oxford Street, which he sees as a sort of Valhalla.

 
On the rolling, never-ending, never-rewarding street belt there also appear occasional Londoners with actual jobs, hurrying through the Tube, or drunk and throwing up outside silk night-club ropes when evening comes. Sometimes there are agents of social assistance – police catching him dodging a fare, as middle-aged man exasperatedly offers to pay it for him,; there are doctors, and a jobcentre dealing with confused people worrying about ESA and PIPs and the new benefits regime.
The latter mainly peer at laptops and wish Liam would go away and become 18, or employed, or take up volunteering. Vaguely he says “cool, wicked, yeh” and wanders on. One of his friends tells him to “F—- off home and grow up”; his schoolfriend’s mother, when one of the confusing, whirling doorways is opened to him, expresses much the same. In the opening moments a brisk middle-class woman doctor peremptorily checks his penis for STDs (I think this may be a heavy indication of the emasculation of the old manual labouring classes by the ascent of professional women).

 

 

And so the city whirls on, with a sinister half-heard heartbeat, a pounding remorselessness, and oor wandering Liam – amid his mumbles and argot – makes it gradually, keenly, tragically clear that all he wants from life is something to be “busy” with during his empty days. “Bizzie! Bizness!” he says. But he hasn’t even the go to deal drugs. Or, like his more articulate friend, to blame it all with vague political resentment on “estate agents and immigrants and Syria an’ shit an’ ISIS” .

 

 
Writer Leo Butler and the creative team have created something not quite a play, but ultimately a sort of art installation expressing London’s modern underside and restless, roadworky neurosis. Look at it that way, and it is rather magnificent. A company of some two dozen, mainly young (the lairy quarrelling girls are a hoot, “hashtag bitch, yeah, like..” etc). Seven are on a first professional engagement, including Liam himself, a very assured performance by Frankie Fox, who holds our sympathy alongside our exasperation, and could well have done with a more complete characterization and backstory.

 

 

We deliberately don’t see his parents, which is a pity, though there is a moment with his nine-year-old, contemptuous half-sister. Who, once again, like the girls in the bus shelter and the weary GP, may be sending us a not-too-coded message about how females are doing no good to these lost boys. Probably true. But depressing. It all is.
box office 0207 359 4404 to May
Principal partner ASPEN. Pron supporters Arsenal Foundation / Paul Hamlyn Foundation / Sackler Trust/ Alex Timken
rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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LES BLANCS Olivier, SE1

THE  TWILIGHT OF COLONIAL AFRICA 

 

 

Rufus Norris’ embrace of tough black American history theatre continues: an Olivier met MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM by the great August Wilson – who we don’t see enough, though his FENCES was a West End hit with Lenny Henry. I didn’t review Ma Rainey here because I caught it late for family reasons, and there were enough other reviews out there; but for the record I cheered for its Olivier. Not just for Sharon D.Clarke but for the bandsmen, especially Msamati and Giles Terera, whose banter and ultimate disastrous hostility bubble through the play, in the bandroom under the studio. It offers one of Wilson’s starkest, subtlest illustrations of how oppression drives a culture culture to war with itself .

 

 

This play is not about the American backwash from the slave era, but a shattering, important take on Colonial Africa, an unnamed country on the edge of revolution and independence. It is by Lorraine Hansberry (better known for A Raisin In The Sun) who died before it was finished; on the page I suspect would be weaker, though God knows the points it makes are valuable. Norris’ coup is to get director Yael Farber, whose remarkable Crucible shattered us at the Old Vic last year. The result of this staging, working again with Soutra Gilmour’s design of a skeletal mission-house and a starry sky, is spectacular: dark and moody, physically intense, spectacular and haunting: from the opening moments it creates sense of Africa’s vast ancient mystery, under fragile control of a nervy European power . A chorus of turbaned women croon Xhosa harmonies: a single, silent, thin black woman circles the stage, at one point dramatically closing in on the most conflicted character, mounting his back, a burden of ancestry he cannot deny.

 

 

For Tshembe (Danny Sapani) has come home to the environs of the mission after travels in Europe and a first-world marriage and family, to attend the funeral rites of his father, a tribal head. His brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) is a Catholic priest, idealistic and intense but by his calling on the white men’s side while offstage “the terror” is growing, and white families murdered in their beds. As Tshembe grows more wedded to the cause they quarrel. A third brother Erik is half-caste, a very symbol of the division.

 

 

 

Two patriarchs, unseen, overshadow the men: The Reverend missioner, whose old blind wife – played with sibylline elegance by Sian Phillips, who holds some of the play’s strangeness; and old Abioseh, Tshembe’s father. The mission doctors – xxxx and xxxx x- fall into conversation with an American journalist, Charlie (xxxx) whose simplistic first-world naivete is challenged not only by shocking events but by the declamatory, fascinating alternative visions offered by Tshembe – reminding him how long black Africa begged politely for freedom before turning violent – and by Major Rice, the brutal colonial enforcer who has a remarkable, recognizable (very Rhodesian) speech about his own position “I”m not a racist. I’m devoted to the blacks that work for me and who I help to civilize..I”m not by temperament a harsh man, this is our home, we made the country into something, these are our hills..”

 
This speech follows a horrifying shock moment. It is one of the most remarkable theatrical moments of the year. And so, in a quieter way, is Sian Phillips’ delivery Madame’s last reflection on her life and impending death in the Mission house.

 

And if I may be personal for a moment, I should say that the look, the incense smell, the darkness and mystery and desperate half-unspoken unease of this play took me back to my ‘60s teens in South Africa – which took far too long to explode, and did it with far less terror – and Swaziland. To the absurdity of white colonialism, the patience and anger of black Africa, the terrible but routine calculations in which one white death was worse than a hundred black ones. It felt like a lucid dream. Remarkable.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 2 June

RATING    four  4 Meece Rating

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INVINCIBLE Guildford, then Touring

THE STATE OF ENGLAND:  FUNNY, BEAUTIFUL, SAD     Touring Mouse wide

AND TOURING! 

 

Some issues do best as satirical or farcical comedies: English class division, illicit sex, misunderstanding. Others sit less easily with the comic muse: cot death, grief, young lives wasted in war. Torben Betts, in this terrific play, is comfortable handling both, and does so with almost total success. It ran briefly in multi-ethnic, diverse East London: but with this new touring cast will be able to show a wider Britain to itself: at first teasingly, but then with an admirable sad seriousness.
For Oliver and Emma are parlour-leftie southerners with small children who have moved up North to save money and (especially in her case) to fulfil a self-righteous fantasy about living among “real people”. But the real people next door are the vampy Dawn (Kerry Bennett) and Alan (Graeme Brookes). Alan is an immense man-mountain in an England shirt, so untutored in middle-class ways that when they are invited round he sends his wife first, while he finishes watching the England match. He then turns up with a monologue of post-match analysis while the hosts stand speechless.
So far, so funny. Oliver – a redundant MoD civil servant with at least some grasp of practical reality. – attempts gauche friendliness. But Emily Bowker as Emma is a living nightmare in her self-designed asymmetric-chic outfits, pretentious abstract artworks and serene yogic poses. Her meditation and left-of-Corbyn love of the People does not stop her hissing disapproval at Dawn’s tight red dress, or delivering blistering condemnation of Alan’s clumsy paintings of his cat, Vince – Invincible (named after the aircraft carrier on which he was a cook).

 
We get a hint in the first act that Emily is in some sort of grief, from four years previously; but bravely, Betts does not allow her to solicit sympathy for a long time yet. She can’t even bear the St George’s flags on the houses outside in a World Cup year defacing “A beautiful street of 19c stone houses…I AM sympathetic, Oliver, towards the oppressed, but mindless patriotism!” . She is also “trying to move beyond sex”. Dawn, sensibly, isn’t.

 
The postman Alan , though, rapidly becomes one of the most beautiful characters of recent theatre. Boasting to Oliver about his wife’s hotness he says that when he first saw her naked he wept: the supposedly new-man southerner can’t quite take that. And when Alan talks of and shows his paintings – which are splendidly terrible – Emma’s vicious demolition of his work as she prates about how art should “reunify body and soul” and so forth, is torpedoed by his shy “when I paint I don’t feel so lonely”. Merit or no merit, he’s an artist and she’s a pretender. But he still cuts up his paintings, embarrassed. Brookes’ performance is splendid, nuanced, genuine: my only suggestion (and it was a preview at Bury I saw) is for director Christopher Harper to suggest he does a bit less of the maddening laugh in the first scenes. Conveying annoyingness without annoying the audience as well is a tricky ask.

 

 

The fate of Alan’s beloved cat becomes both comic and profoundly sad; in the second half, with good twists, we learn more about him and Dawn , about Oliver’s underlying nature (a lovely cynical concluion here) ; we may respect, to a reasonable degree, nasty Emma’s reason for sorrow. And as a portrait of flawed people in a Britain divided by class and also at war – there’s a painfully sharp line from Dawn about soldiers, which I won’t spoil – it becomes genuinely beautiful as well as sharply perceptive . Honour to Original Theatre and to Theatre Royal Bury, the producers. It’s a good long tour, into June. Catch!

 

tour dates on http://tinyurl.com/zxx76eg
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE CARETAKER Old Vic SE1

SPALL, SQUALOR, AND 1960  

 
I do not routinely worship at the shrine of Harold Pinter. I can study, appreciate and accept the menace, the unspoken, the rhythmic near-poetry of dialogue : I have served my time with Existentialism, Absurdism, Beckettiana, every generation of push-theatre-forward shockjockery. Pinter has his place and his heirs (Florian Zeller lately a fine one). Get a great director like Matthew Warchus and a top cast and you have an event, for many an unmissable one. But he doesn’t stir deeper currents in me. For all the skill and faithfulness what is expressed is too mired in misanthropy, bitterness, bullying rage and shreds of misogyny.

 

 
But having admitted that personal blindness, it is all the more firmly that I admit tht this is a barnstorming production of his best play, and a career-besst performance by Timothy Spall as Davies the tramp: the cuckoo in the nest who is taken in by the mentally limited, benign Aston (Daniel Mays ) and then both tempted and tormented by his sharp thuggish brother Mick (George MacKay). In three acts with short intervals, power and menace ebbs and swirls between them, provoking laughs both unforced and uneasy, spurting sudden riffs of eloquence , keeping the unspoken shiver in the air. Spall, a shambling grizzled wreck with a querulous drawling delivery, is mesmerizingly good; Mays gives Aston a wounded dignity which comes as near to pathos as Pinter ever allows; MacKay is a slim, lethal blade of darkness, hollow at heart. Warchus, who sees more humanity in Pinter than I generally do, extracts from these three actors every ounce of it.

 

The set by Rob Howell is a marvel: a leprous attic room, peeling wallpaper, boxes, junk, bin-lids, a broken gas stove, squalid beds, drifts of old carpet, tottering piles of newspaper. Indeed the whole play falls into period, the 1960 I dimly remember as a child: Rachman’s slum London , postwar squalor, broken men, unfeasible sullen ambition, teddyboys in ciré bomber jackets like Mick, Pete and Dud eerily prefigured in non sequitur conversations. There are brilliant sequences: Mick’s estate-agenty riffs on interior design, Spall’s hilarilous preenings in the velvet smoking-jacket , and his fleeting attempts to pose with pipesmoking authority or soldierly bravura. The long concentrated silences of Mays as he fiddles with mending the same toaster over and over are perfect, as is his profoundly felt account of the brutal electric shock treatment which disabled him mentally and physically. Yet this is delivered to Davies who is almost asleep, uncaring; though not asleep enough to miss it since when the tramp turns on his host with fearful viciousness later, Spall’s venom makes you wince in your seat.

 

 
As power and abusiveness whirl and shift between them in the filth, all three hold their qualities superbly: Davies querulous, needy, ungrateful, whiningly vicious and always ineffective;; Aston damaged, benign, unhappy, and ineffective; Mick petulant, menacing, manipulative and, naturally, just as ineffective. None of them will fulfil their goals – going to Sidcup, building a shed, remodelling a penthouse. The only completed task is Aston’s provision of wearable shoes for Davies, and even then the laces are the wrong colour.

 

 

So yes, brilliant. Yet there is something uneasy too: a sense of zoo or freak-show in us a cultured theatre-savvy affluent 21st century audience, gathered round to laugh at bygone deadbeats, thugs and failures who in no way reflect us challengingly back at ourselves. It is a cosy sort of discomfort we feel: .like looking at sooty back-to-back terraces from a first class train window.

 

box office 0844 871 7628
principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating four    (though given that set and theme, they’re probably rats..)4 Meece Rating

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X Royal Court, SW1

TO BOLDLY GO OFF YOUR HEAD, IN SPACE
We are in the melamine mess-room of a space pod on the dead, black planet Pluto, with a crew of five. Unless one of them is a delusion of the nervy second-in-command Gilda (Jessica Raine). The captain is Darrell D’Silva, always a treat, especially here since he is the only one who remembers living trees and birdsong back on now-blighted earth. He plays around with wooden bird-calls to remember. The others are an intensely annoying teenage Scottish comms techie (James Harkness) and a dour mathematician (Rudi Dharmalingam). Oh, and Mattie who does the “life systems” , and pops in to chat to Gilda, girl-to-girl, about how it helps the tedium if you masturbate three times a day.
Not that anyone’s sure when the day starts and ends, because the digital clock on the wall has gone mad, and it looks as if the relief ship from Earth isn’t coming, being three months (eventually several years) overdue. And maybe Earth doesn’t care anyway, because all the blonde Americans are colonizing Mars as a super-race, and Pluto is for the old, the underqualified and the unwanted.
So it’s political theatre at the Court, Jim, but not as we know it… Though actually, Alistair McDowall’s play is not the first time the Royal Court has flirted with sci-fi: there was 2071, at the end of The Low Road a few years back there was a spaceship, unless I dreamed it. But this is full-on, trad dystopian sci-fi with a rising edge of psychosis and alienation. Fine in principle: I grew up with James Blish and Wyndham and Brian Aldiss, so a stranded spaceship is happy home turf to me. At first the interaction between the crew – a woefully unprofessional bunch once the three-month delay starts to grate – is credible and entertaining enough, with traditional post-apocalyptic chat about the last tree and the overcrowded earth with its vanished nations. Raine is excellent as the anxious snippy Gilda, the unsure new promotee at anyone’s office; D’Silva is solid and likeable as Captain Ray. So a certain dismay attends early news of his funeral , but what with the increasing time-slip, and delusion and memory sequences (very fashionable after the recent Zeller plays) we do see Ray again , hallucinating a scar-faced child (Amber Fernée, admirably deadpan) and cutting his throat.

 

But the rest just gradually go mad, angry, and in two cases dead, leaving Gilda and some cracking sound and light effects to a private dementia involving a giant pulsating dead bird, interestingly worked into a possibly real or possibly delusional pregnancy and more appearances from young Fernée, this time without the scar.
And that’s it. Disappointment hovers over the second half, despite the increasing drama and a gabbled algorithmic craziness between the last survivors. As a study in what isolation and hopelessness does to prisoners it is reasonably interesting, but the absence of any back-story or credibility in any character except D’Silva is a serious drawback. The nihilistic vision in the end is more depressing than engrossing and there is a point when – a rare thing for me – the temptation is to look at your watch and find there are 25 minutes left to run but it’s already mired in sub-Beckettian surrealism.
In the event it wasn’t quite that long, and an effective last speech takes us back to remembering the lost, polluted, drowned, wrecked home planet. Which I suppose was the author’s point. Fair enough.

Box office: 020-7565 5000 to 7 May
rating three   3 Meece Rating
But the third is for the soundscape and lighting. (Lee Curran, Nick Powell, Tal Rosner)

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